Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Drain Sludge

by Jennifer Archer

I wrote the following article for a writing organization's newsletter many years ago before my first book was published. I recently ran across it and was sent back in time to experience again all of the  emotions that go along with the struggle to publish. The realities of publishing are quite different today. You can put an ebook up online and call yourself a published author. But for those of you still trying to publish traditionally, and struggling, I hope reading my old article helps you to put it all into perspective. While you're reading, glance now and then at the covers I've posted of my book BODY AND SOUL. The first book I ever wrote that I speak about in this article never sold, but the second one did -- and BODY AND SOUL is it! The original cover is the one with the fortune cookie on it. The cover with the picture of two women is the current re-release in ebook format.

DRAIN SLUDGE by Jennifer Archer

Since receiving another rejection on my novel, I've been thinking about drain sludge -- that disgusting conglomeration of hair, soap scum, and who-knows-what-else that clogs up plumbing. I once heard drain sludge compared to a writer's early work: "You have to get it out of your system so the good stuff can flow."

Can I deal with the fact that my first novel might be slime? That my long-toiled-over manuscript may never reside between the cover of a book? I never presumed I'd written The Great American Novel. I didn't expect a Pulitzer Prize. But...drain sludge? After much thought and a little sulking, I've reached a conclusion: If need be, I'll lay my manuscript to rest without weeping. Negative thinking? I choose to call it realism, because as I scan my quickly-dwindling market list of prospective publishers, I must be realistic.

Daphne Clair de Jong, author for Harlequin Mills & Boon and Silhouette wrote: "...there are many, many more people out there who want to write romances than there are spaces for on the bookstore racks. And the cold hard truth is that lots -- lots -- of them are never going to be published." Initially Ms. de Jong's comments depressed me. But then I read this in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: "Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram -- it's the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar. What's real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you'll get better....And so if one of your heart's deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so."

A number of reasons to write other than publication? I thought publication was THE goal?

Maybe I've been looking at this all wrong. Maybe my focus should be on becoming the best writer I can be rather than becoming a published writer. Afterall, the words I put down are all I control. I can't control an editor's opinion or the buying public's taste.

Not long ago, my son asked, "What if your book never gets published? Think how much time you will have wasted." When I consider the hours I worked on my novel and the possibility it might never sell, I don't regret one minute spent. By struggling through those pages, I learned about the craft of writing and about myself. I gained priceless insight into plotting, characterization and more -- insight I couldn't derive from a textbook. By attempting the process rather than simply reading about it, I experienced the difficulties, confronted them, worked my way around them. Perhaps not always skillfully, but I did it, nonetheless. Completing and submitting the book to publishers taught me I could finish a project and that, through a well-written query letter, I could entice editors to request my manuscript. Most important, I learned that while rejection is unpleasant, it isn't fatal. And if I'm lucky enough to receive an editor's feedback, I can often use it to make my story even stronger.

And what did I learn about myself? I've been right about one thing all my life -- a writer is what I want to be when I grow up. Also, I'm tougher than I thought, and more persistent. I can read my work aloud to a group without suffering a nervous breakdown. I can accept constructive criticism graciously, even be thankful for it. Best of all, I learned I can write simply for the love of it and experience satisfaction. I won't lie -- it stings to admit my early work might be drain sludge. Because, good or bad, I'm fond of my first novel, as you should be of your first attempts at writing. And though we may have needed to "get it out of our system so the good stuff can flow," I believe our early work and drain sludge have nothing else in common. Sludge has no redeeming qualities. Writing a first novel, short story or article, on the other hand, is an unforgettable experience. Like kissing, falling in love, swimming in the ocean or flying in an airplane, there's no other time quite like the first one.

Enough brooding. Time to go back to work on Book #2. The plumber is leaving and, with any luck, it might finally be safe for me to turn on the faucet.

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